One thing that comes up over and over in discussing rape and how to stop it is the role of the criminal justice system. Advocates for survivors are adamant that survivors don’t have to report and don’t have to use the system. Many other people, for various reasons, think that survivors have an obligation to go to the police and prosecute. Some of these people are well-intentioned, and others really just want to say that any survivor who does not report should be ignored. I’ve written at the greatest length about this specifically with reference to kinky communities, where the “cops or STFU” brigade is not well-intentioned, but rather mostly composed of people who know full well that successful prosecution is almost impossible, that contact with the police will be affirmatively awful for the survivor, and just want a rallying cry to shout down all survivors.
I won’t repeat a general explanation of why the criminal justice system is broken here. For a lot of people in a lot of social positions, contact with the cops is not likely to go well. That’s just the reality we have to live with, and anyone who doesn’t see that is neck-deep in their own privilege. That explains why, for example, people of color, or sex workers, or trans people might decide the cops are more likely to be a danger to them than to help them, and that’s not specific to rape. But there is another reason even the most privileged folks may not want to go to the police about a rape. When the rape doesn’t fit the stranger-rape or overt-force storylines that make for the least difficult prosecutions (and sometimes even when it does), there is reason to believe that there may be no real investigation at all. It’s a journalistic convention to start with anecdotes, to humanize the story. These are systemic problems, and I’d prefer to start with how many rape complaints languish without real investigation, how many cases are dropped without an interrogation of a certain number of witnesses and whatnot. But that data is spotty or nonexistent; and people being people, it is necessary to start with a terrible story to humanize the problem. So I’ll do this in the usual way.
[Content note for an ugly story about a woman who was sexually assaulted, then stonewalled.]
Hannah at Howard and the D.C. Police
Hannah (the name Amanda Hess used in her excellent reporting back when she was with the Washington Citypaper) was at a party at Howard — somewhere in the house, and her friends didn’t know where. Her friends, her wingwomen, were looking for her, worried. A big guy who said he had been paid to keep people from the second floor physically prevented them from going upstairs to look for her; then he made a show of looking himself, but all the bedroom doors were locked. He was sweating. Hannah’s friends thought he looked nervous, like he knew something was wrong. The women yelled and made noise, ignoring the bodyguard’s and the owner’s orders that they leave, and eventually Hannah emerged from a bedroom: intoxicated, obviously out of it, barely able to negotiate the stairs. Her friends had been with her much of the night, and she hadn’t had enough alcohol to be that drunk. Something was wrong. As they left, they got half-way down the block before Hannah told them enough for them to figure out that she had been raped. Then she threw up. The women stormed back to the address of the house party, demanding to know who had taken Hannah into the bedroom. The men inside gave a fake name, then slammed the door. Hannah did what the “cops or STFU” crowd insist on. She went to the “proper authorities.” Hannah’s friends took her, still throwing up, to Howard University Hospital. Her friend filled out the intake form, “raped, possibly drugged.” Then, Hess writes: Read more…
I feel sorry for Jonathan Swift. The term “satire” and specifically Swift’s “modest proposal” about eating Irish children gets pressed into service to excuse and defend more offensive nonsense than Swift could have ever predicted. But the art of satire, as Swift employed it, isn’t dead, nor even entirely lost even after being used as the dumping ground for all that sloppy rubbish.*
A Denver-area kinkster and consent activist, Coco Jones (not the radio personality) has graced us with “I’m Taking Responsibility For Getting Raped.” If you’re writing a manual on how to satirize offensive, oppressive bullshit the Swiftian way, by treating it entirely seriously within the four corners of the text and letting it hang itself, you would do well to use this as your example:
I owe everyone an apology. I never expected to write this, I was stuck in a different mindset for a long time. But I think it’s time I accept something and admit where I have gone wrong. I have been pushing away, countering, debating, and made myself an all out controversial figure in the community. And what for? This whole time I just haven’t been listening. I’ve been deflecting and refusing to take ownership for something.
It’s time for me to step up and accept what so many have been saying. I am finally going to take personal responsibility for getting raped. Yep, you heard me. No more of this, ‘stop victim blaming’. I have gotten the message loud and clear. You are right. I did this. You finally broke through to me.
So, this is how I got myself raped and how I will be at fault for a future rape, or perhaps a mere consent violation, should it occur.
* * * Read more…
I’ll cut to the chase: a friend and activist is collecting stories and aggregating information about people who have left BDSM or kink communities and their reasons. I think this is important, and I want to encourage people to participate. There is a survey form here. There is a FAQ post about it here, and a follow-up here. The blogger, Motley Mayhem, has put the project ahead of the personality and I’ll respect that, except to say that I know and believe in Motley from consent culture work on Fetlife and I am really glad Motley is doing this.
The project has grown organically from a call to Motley’s friends to share stories, into a much bigger effort to capture the frequency and commonalities of these narratives. I don’t have access to any raw data, but I can tell you from the stories I’ve seen and heard over the years that I expect the real news to be the frequency and similarity of certain patterns. Regular readers will know what I think; what’s more important is to have thousands of accounts to back up the ways in which kinky communities drive off exactly the people who seek them out; the ways they act as power centers for the established members of the community and not as resources to guide or advocate for all the people who are or should be their constituents.
In the last two or three years, consent activism has exploded within kinky communities. A lot of people can share credit for a revolution in progress, because there is a revolution in progress, or, as I said in my biggest series of posts on this topic, there’s a war on. This survey is the forging of a powerful weapon in that war, a weapon made of truth. Please help. If you have a story to tell, please tell what you can, and if you don’t, please signal boost this so it finds the people who do.
Time flies when there’s too much to do. This blog launched when the book, Yes Means Yes: Visions Of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape, hit the shelves in November 2008. The book went on to critical raves and a solid position in college syllabi, while its editors, Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti, went on to other things — Jessica left her baby, Feministing, and ended up with a regular gig at The Nation, while Jaclyn wrote the follow-up workbook What You Really Really Want (I wrote the online supplement, and while I’m clearly biased, I think it’s a terrific book and it almost literally offers some useful tools for everyone old enough to read it). She writes for various outlets, does media appearances, runs WAM! and generally keeps a schedule that can make you tired just looking at it.
This was originally a group blog, and in the first year a majority of the contributors that said they would write for the blog submitted at least one post, but many only one or two. Some of those posts were terrific; Stacy May Fowles’s and Lee Jacobs-Riggs’s work particularly resonated with me. Before long, only a handful of us were writing anything for the blog, and then it was just me and Jaclyn, and a lot more me than Jaclyn, and for a long time now this has effectively been a solo blog. I never intended it that way, but that’s what happened.
When I started, I didn’t realize I had so much to say.
After three hundred posts of mine, and dozens of other folks’ from the early years, there is a heck of a back catalog. This is an entirely partial and biased list.
Rape and Rape Culture:
BDSM and Kink Community Issues:
Stuff I loved that nobody read:
Sometimes I think that some time I’ll be done, and then I remember what Jaclyn taught me: it is not yours to complete the work, neither is it yours to desist from it. So maybe I’ll still be here in another five. Thing will be better then. Not completely, but some.
I never know what to say. I have no analysis to bring to Trans Day of Remembrance. What strikes me every year is that trans folks need a day on the calendar to remember their dead.
238 this year, according to the Trans Murder Monitoring report.
In the wake of George Zimmerman’s arrest for aggravated assault, I wanted to revisit an aspect of Predator Theory that often goes overlooked: that the undetected rapists that Lisak’s research identified are non-specialist offenders.
Back in Meet The Predators, the most viewed post in this blog’s now five-year history, I wrote:
Lisak & Miller also answered their other question: are rapists responsible for more violence generally? Yes. The surveys covered other violent acts, such as slapping or choking an intimate partner, physically or sexually abusing a child, and sexual assaults other than attempted or completed rapes. In the realm of being partner- and child-beating monsters, the repeat rapists really stood out. These 76 men, just 4% of the sample, were responsible for 28% of the reported violence. The whole sample of almost 1900 men reported just under 4000 violent acts, but this 4% of recidivist rapists results in over 1000 of those violent acts.
If we could eliminate the men who rape again and again and again, a quarter of the violence against women and children would disappear. That’s the public policy implication.
I don’t know if there is a more specific look at this elsewhere, but Lisak found a correlation between rape of adults and sexual abuse of children, and between rape of adults and intimate partner violence. On the whole, one would anticipate that this would mean that there is a correlation between sexual abuse of children and intimate partner violence. That struck me because of what we’re learned over time about George Zimmerman, who shot and killed Trayvon Martin but was acquitted:
He is under arrest for pointing a shotgun in his girlfriend’s face.
His girlfriend now alleges that he choked her in the past, and that he previously threatened to kill himself if she left him (a common abuser tactic of emotional manipulation).
This is the girlfriend he got together with after his wife filed for divorce. He allegedly punched his ex-wife’s father, threatened them with a handgun, and shattered her iPad to prevent video of his violent acts from being used against him.
He precipitated the confrontation with Martin, an unarmed teen who went to the store for snacks. It is undisputed that he shot and killed Martin. (Even some jurors have admitted that this acquittal was a travesty.)
So we might expect there to be a higher likelihood that he also sexually assaulted a child.
That’s exactly what one cousin alleges. The audio was released last summer, and you can hear her in her own words here, describing a pattern of abuse that lasted ten years and started when she was just six: “he would reach under the blanket and try to do things, and I would try to push him off, but he was bigger and stronger and older, and it was in front of everybody, and I don’t know how I didn’t say anything, but I just didn’t know any better …”
Folks make excuses for these people, until they don’t. After Trayvon Martin, there was too much attention on Zimmerman to take advantage of the cover he got earlier in life. But how many other people are out there, molesting relatives, abusing partners, doing damage to the world around them, while people try hard not to see a pattern?
Throughout the now nearly five year history of this blog, I’ve written extensively about the dynamics of rape, who the rapists are, how they operate and what has to happen in the culture to make them stop. Much of this is broad, and involves decades of change. In the words of an old Jewish saying imparted to me by Jaclyn Friedman, “it is not yours to complete the work; neither is it yours to desist from it.”
But rape the social problem takes decades to solve, and the rapes that happen to us or our friends or the people we love don’t happen over decades, they happen all of a sudden. When people read things like my responses to Emily Yoffe, they want to know, “I don’t have decades. What do I do now?”
The activist answer to this question, in the broadest terms, is really easy. You do what you can, with what you have, where you are. What does that mean practically? Here is what I think it means, today, and starting tomorrow. Because this is coming up on the context of the Yoffe piece, I’m going to primarily address one common area where repeat-offender acquaintance rapists operate, adult and young adult social environments in the US, especially those where alcohol is the social drug of choice. This leaves out stranger rape, where the dynamics are very different. It also leaves out a whole slew of other circumstances that repeat rapists use. For example, in institutional settings, like inpatient facilities and prisons, or in the armed forces, or in the certain sports environments or workplaces, there are very different dynamics and, probably, very different solutions. I am not going to try to address those, though, because I don’t know enough about them.
What To Do Today: Cockblocking Rapists
The paradigmatic repeat rapist uses a set of tactics that work, and they go like this: push alcohol, test boundaries, physically isolate the target, and narrow the target’s options. Look for that, and break it up. In the rapes of juveniles now being reported in Missouri, what did the older boys do? The girls were already smashed, but they pushed more alcohol, they put them in separate rooms, isolated from each other and with no friendly faces around. The person looking to get the drunk drunker, and then alone, is not to be trusted.
Spot The Boundary Testing
Look for the boundary testing. If a rapist wants to buy someone a drink, and doesn’t take no for an answer, what he got for his money is that the target can be talked out of “no.”
Not everyone who pushes boundaries is a rapist. Some people think they can touch without asking, because they have absorbed some terrible ideas, or because they are in social circumstances –like some highly sexualized environments — where they think they can touch whoever and however they want. That’s boorish, but it’s not the same thing as what the rapist does because the motive is different. Someone who gropes or smacks like they have permission even when they don’t may think it’s funny, may think it’s cute, may think it’s a good way to get laid. I have a problem with that, because that behavior makes it tougher for everyone else to see what the rapists are doing. But what the rapists do, they do for a different reason.
What the rapists do is target selection. They are looking for someone whose boundaries they can violate, and who won’t or can’t stand up for themselves. The best targets, the ones who offer the rapists the best chance of getting away with it, are those who won’t report — or who will never even admit to themselves that what happened was rape. The way the rapist finds those people is to cross their boundaries again and again, progressively testing and looking for resistance.
That’s the pattern to look for. If somebody seems to be testing to see if one of your friends can be pushed off of “no,” has a limited ability to stand up for themselves, that’s the red flag.
The most important thing you can do if you see this pattern is tell the target you see it. Forewarned is forearmed. In fact, somebody who is being targeted and pushed and tested may think they see the pattern, but may not trust their own instincts. If they know you see it, too, then they may trust a bad feeling that they are already feeling.
If you think someone is acting like a rapist, sizing up a target — encouraging intoxication, testing boundaries — then one of their best tools they have is to limit the target’s options. The rapist wants to get the target isolated. But when “hey, let’s go be alone somewhere” isn’t working, it may be because the target already has a bad feeling. If the target needs something — a ride home, a place to sleep, that sort of thing — then they may be willing to overlook misgivings if the rapist is the one offering it. A rapist will always want to be the target’s only ride home, only place to stay, etc.
It’s pretty easy to keep that from happening. If the drunkest person in the room has been left by their ride, and the person who has been pushing them to drink more is offering to take them home, they may not want to go, but they may not have a better option. Providing that option may be what gets your friend away from the potential rapist.
Protect The Drunks
Of course, people don’t only get drunk or high because someone pushes them to. Lots of people get drunk or high because they want to. Longtime readers will know that I don’t, but it’s part of the culture and it would be unrealistic to ignore it. Lots of people want to get drunk or high. And lots of people want to do that and then be sexual with someone. Now, that’s not how I roll. I wish alcohol had a less prominent place in our culture, and I wish there were a lot less overlap between sex and substance use. But that’s a really hard problem to change, and the whole point of this post is to talk about what to do today and tomorrow, not what to change over the next couple of decades.
So maybe you have a friend who wants to get fairly drunk, and then finds someone to have some sexytime with. That’s fine. But just like we tell our friends when they’re too drunk to be driving, shouldn’t we tell our friends when they are too drunk to hook up? Nobody can really take the keys away, but there’s a point past which we’re all pretty clear something shouldn’t happen. People who can’t walk or form a sentence clearly can’t consent, and if we let people wander off like that with a potential partner, we’re abdicating responsibility to people who have no ability to exercise it. People can make their own decisions when they are capable of making their own decisions.
What To Do Tomorrow: Make Sure Everyone Knows
The thing is, rapists absolutely need one thing to operate. They need people to believe they are not rapists. Stranger rapists do that by trying to hide that they are the person who committed the rape. Acquaintance rapists do that by picking targets who won’t say anything about what happened, or by using tactics that, if the survivor does speak up, people will decide don’t really count as rape. If you want to do something about rapists, make sure people know they are rapists.
I’m talking right-now solutions, literally something you can do tomorrow, so I don’t mean that over time we can change the culture so that alcohol-facilitated assaults are understood as rape. Lots of people are working on that. What I mean is that you can tell everyone you know that the person that you know raped someone, because the survivor told you and maybe only a few other people, is a rapist. You may not be able to say how you know, because you may not have the survivor’s permission to talk about it. But you can quietly tell your friends.
Cliff Pervocracy wrote about this in 2012: someone that, within a tight-knit community, lots of people know or suspect is a rapist, so much so that they kind of work around that person:
Have you ever been in a house that had something just egregiously wrong with it? Something massively unsafe and uncomfortable and against code, but everyone in the house had been there a long time and was used to it? “Oh yeah, I almost forgot to tell you, there’s a missing step on the unlit staircase with no railings. But it’s okay because we all just remember to jump over it.”
Some people are like that missing stair.
And what people do is, without being able to prove it, sort of take for granted that this person can’t be trusted, stick someone on them to monitor them and keep them from being able to commit rape. Cliff was very critical of this, as effectively if unintentionally covering for the rapist. And I agree. What communities need to do with the rapists in their communities is not to find a workaround; they need to actually deal with them, catch them and hold them accountable or throw them out. But that has to start somewhere. It starts with sharing information about the rapist. It starts with the new people knowing what the allegations are, the old people knowing what the allegations are, the leaders knowing what the allegations are, and all the people who would make excuses for the rapist knowing what the allegations are.
Because of the way people work around rapists in social circles now, the communities keep kicking the can down the road. New people often don’t find out until they’ve been around for a while, and some people know part of the story but not the whole story, and other people have a story about how one survivor isn’t credible but never have to deal with the commonalities between the several survivors’ accounts.
I drew a flowchart for my There’s A War On series, which dealt with consent violations, rape and abuse in kinky communities. Here’s the flowchart. What it shows is that if the stories of each individual survivor exist in isolation, the problem never gets dealt with. The survivors are each on their own, and the fear or the reality of resistant community reactions will tend to silence them. When those silos get broken down, the community can (and may be forced to) consider all the evidence together, which is really important to getting the fence-sitters and defenders to recognize that the behavior they are looking at is a pattern of abuse.
In the first instance, telling people what has been said, to the extent you can, will lead to the “missing stair” phenomenon, where people are wary of the accused rapist but feel like they can’t take decisive action, and so work around the person like a broken stair tread. But what happens is that letting the stories grow legs will bring other stories out. The serial rapists leave a trail of survivors; if the all speak up at once, the rapists can’t hide what they’ve done.
What can people do with unsubstantiated accusations? Quite a lot, actually. If you’re watching someone pushing one of your friends to have another round and getting handsy, would it be better to know if another person in your social circle said, “that person raped me”? Yeah, that would be important to know. And if two different people said it? And, given the silence around rape and the low reporting rates, one story is often an important catalyst for another. Once one story is out there, others tend to come up. The more data, the easier it is to compare, and evaluate credibility based on multiple data points. And what then? Then, accountability. That can look like a lot of different things. It can look like prosecution. It can look like some model of transformative justice, though I won’t try to make a pitch for transformative justice models because I won’t do it as well as its advocates would.* It might look like ostracization, because any social group, when someone harms its members, ought to be able to say, “you’re not welcome here anymore.”
Some people will say that’s rumormongering. Yes. Yes, it is. If stopping rape isn’t a good enough reason to spread rumors to you, then you and I have nothing further to discuss.
Some people will say that it’s unfair to do that, to simply take the survivor’s word, to say things about people without due process. Well, due process is for the government, to limit their power to lock people up or take their property. You don’t owe people due process when you decide whether to be friends with them. You don’t have to have a hearing and invite them to bring a lawyer to decide whether to invite them to a party. And let’s be honest, most of us repeat things that one person we know did to another person we know based on nothing more than that one participant told us and we believe them. We do it all the time, it’s part of social interaction.
So if you want to do something, take the label, plant it on the missing stair in your social circle, and make it stick.
It Can’t All Be On The Survivors
I’ve seen the following two things happen:
(1) someone gets sexually assaulted, whether raped or violated in another way, and people say to the survivor, “you have to do something! If you don’t do something, who will protect the next victim?”
(2) someone gets sexually assaulted, whether raped or violated in another way, and the survivor yells and shouts for people to deal with it, and the people who are friendly with both the survivor and the violator shrug their shoulders and try to stay “neutral.”
What these two things have in common is that in each case, the people around the situation place all the responsibility on the person who most needs help and can least be expected to go it alone.
That’s lazy, and that’s selfish, and it’s really easy. It’s really easy because it requires nothing of the bystanders. The people who are friends with both people may not want to accept that their friend, someone they are close to and think highly of, could do such an awful thing, because it calls into question their ability to judge people.
Or, they may just be afraid to confront people. Confronting people is emotionally taxing, and it often irreparably ends the friendship. In fact, about something as serious as rape, it invariably irreparably alters the friendship. If you believe that your friend raped your other friend, and you say, “hey, you raped my friend,” then the old friendship is gone forever as soon as the words leave your mouth. What remains is either enmity, or a relationship of holding someone accountable, just as tough and taxing as staying friends with a substance abuser who is trying to get clean and sober. That’s not easy. That’s a lot of work, and most people are not up for it.
The option most people choose, because it gets them out of that, is to choose to not make up their minds about what happened. Now, you might think that people can do that with one accusation. But believe me, people, that I could name several people who still “don’t know what happened” about a person — not the same person, but different ones — who has been accused not once, not twice, but at least three times of similar violations by three different people.
Just think about that. “Hey, you’re still friends with Boris. But X said Boris raped her.” “Well yeah, but I don’t know what to believe.” “Well, but you know what Y said, and Y’s account was a lot like X’s.” “Yeah, but I don’t know what to believe.” “But Z said Boris violated consent, too, and that’s three people …” “Well, I’ve been friends with Boris a long time, so I kind of don’t know what to think …” (Trust me when I tell you, folks, I’m not making that up.)
What can you do tomorrow? Don’t let your communities do that shit. Hold your friends to a higher standard.
Now you may be saying to yourself that this isn’t relevant to you, that you never are in social circumstances where you see someone pushing people’s boundaries and pushing alcohol and looking to be the one to take the drunk “home.” Or that in your community you don’t have someone who everyone kind of knows but doesn’t want to know is not to be trusted. Or that you never see the bystanders sitting on their hands and making rape an issue between the survivor and the rapist.
And if that’s true, it must be nice where you live.
*I’m not a fountain of good references for transformative or restorative justice, either, but the restorative justice Wikipedia entry looks like a good place to start, and Tranformative Justice Law Project, and RestorativeJustice.org might also be useful reading.